Preview: Taylor Kelly, Arizona State have small window left to overcome adversity
Being a quarterback can either bring glory and sparkling memories, or it can really kick you in the shins.
As Washington State’s quarterback of four years, Connor Halliday’s name had become synonymous with words like “tumultuous” and “turbulent”. Known for his big arm and bigger personality, the red-haired fireball was stuffed into a Bic lighter in the name of quirky head coach Mike Leach’s formulaic quarterback mold — a cause of constant conflict for a couple years — and threw and threw until the passing records just had to come.
Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly’s name had become synonymous with words like “consistent” and “dependable” and he’d fought hard in 2012 from the recesses of the depth chart to become head coach Todd Graham’s leading man. He did everything he was supposed to do — he made the completions, he provided the leadership, he helped set the learning curve of the blossoming program. He worked and worked until the QB1 status just had to come.
Halliday’s career was cut brutally short when his right leg snapped after being landed on by USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams earlier this month.
Kelly’s career is now being called into question after a foot injury for which he had surgery. Since his return, he’s thrown five interceptions in four games. In three of those games, he and his teammates were still able to step up and win. In one, they were not.
Halliday was the nation’s passing leader prior to the injury, and owned Washington State’s last victory over the Sun Devils in 2011, throwing for 494 yards and four touchdowns. Now, he can’t finish what he started three full years ago. If the Cougars do earn glory over a ranked team, it won’t be Halliday’s name in the headline.
Football hasn’t been fair for Halliday — it never was.
It’s has been more than fair to Kelly by the laws of hard work: He’s gotten out what he’s put into it, and he’s put in a lot. Prior to being hurt, Kelly hadn’t thrown a pick on the season and led ASU to a 10-4 record and Pac-12 South championship in 2013.
After his display of loyalty to the quarterback through the past few games, it’s almost unthinkable to imagine that Todd Graham won’t start Kelly on Senior Day.
“Before the injury, I think he was moving a lot better and was able to execute the zone read stuff,” Graham said. “I’m not sure he is 100 percent back yet, but that is something that is hard to evaluate because practice is one thing and the game is another.”
But against Washington State’s defense which gives up an average of 454 yards per game, Kelly might just have the game he needs to finally silence doubts of his post-injury prowess.
He, unlike Halliday, has the chance to finish strong on Senior Day; to set the tone of the beginning of the end. He just needs to take it.
“It’s a struggle at times,” he said earlier this week of his comeback. “But you’ve got to continue to fight through adverse situations. It’s going to happen in life. Not everything is going to go great, so you’ve got to just keep chopping at the wood and good things are going to happen.”
Kelly’s had the glory. Now, football is kicking him in the shins.
And unlike Halliday, he could have a chance to kick it right back.
Here’s what to look for when the Sun Devils are on both sides of the ball Saturday against Washington State:
Sun Devils on Offense:
Stabilizing the ground game:
There’s a chance star receiver Jaelen Strong won’t play against Washington State because of a concussion suffered in the loss to Oregon State (though he did practice Thursday).
Strong’s nine touchdowns on the season are a nice, steady cushion to fall back on in case the game gets tight, but if he doesn’t play, the Sun Devils still have another playmaker whom they can trust in D.J. Foster.
Foster also has nine touchdowns this season. His 872 yards rushing on 155 attempts and 527 receiving yards on 47 receptions prove he can be relied upon on both the ground and in the air.
Arizona State should utilize him mostly on the ground — he can establish consistency to stabilize an offense that may not be as balanced without Strong’s air support.
But if he’s utilized well in the slot, that could give still another playmaker — Demario Richard — a few carries and the opportunity to make one of the big plays he’s becoming known for in his freshman season.
The Cougars give up an average of 146.2 yards per game on the ground alone, a number which the combined efforts of Kelly, Richard and Foster could easily hit.
Strike first, strike fast, strike hard, strike last:
Washington State has notoriously allowed a vast amount of points to be put up against them all season — they’ve had over 30 points scored on them seven times in 10 games — and rank 105th in the country in total defense.
Arizona State’s potential to attack quickly and viciously will come in handy — but they have to be consistent through four quarters. In the past two games, they’ve failed to score a single point in the third quarter and have struggled to stay in a steady rhythm.
Against an offense that is first in the nation in passing yards and that has only scored less than 20 points in three games out of 10 — all losses — ASU will need to keep the heavy offensive strikes coming all game long to shut down any hope of a Wazzu comeback.
Sun Devils on Defense:
The blitz breaks young quarterbacks
Some analysts wondered if Arizona State would still blitz as often after being exposed by Oregon State’s running backs.
Of course they will.
Why? Because Washington State averages only 43.6 rush yards per game. They don’t have a tailback package that can find gaps in the blitz. And under center for the Cougars is freshman Luke Falk, who is making only the second start of his collegiate career.
Sure, Falk stepped up in Halliday’s absence completed 44-of-61 passes for 471 yards and five touchdowns in his debut, a win over Oregon State, breaking Washington State’s four-game losing streak in the process and earning him Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors.
But he didn’t face a pass rush that blitzes over 80 percent of the game. And after last week’s fiasco, it’s an angry one, too, with something to prove.
If Arizona State can shake his reportedly calm demeanor, they can prevent Falk from putting up more big numbers.
Harassing the Mayle man
The Cougars’ top receiver, Vince Mayle, has 86 receptions for 1,152 yards and nine touchdowns on the season. He is a force to be reckoned with on the field — he’s fast, runs excellent routes and had some of the softest hands in the Pac-12.
ASU’s secondary will have their hands full with Mayle, because when he makes catches he makes big ones. His average reception is 13.4 yards, and he strikes early, accumulating the majority of his yards on first down.
If Mayle can be hassled enough by the combined efforts of the ASU secondary, the Sun Devils may as well have removed Washington State’s right hand.
• Jordan Simone, now a standout safety for the Sun Devils, attended Washington State and played for the Cougars in 2011 before transferring to ASU. Simone is also a native of Washington.
• If Strong plays and makes a touchdown grab, it will be his tenth on the season and will make him the tenth receiver in ASU history with double-digit touchdown catches.
Strong, who is up for the Biletnikoff Award, was the first Sun Devil since 1996 to catch a touchdown in five straight games.
• Leach had a cameo on the popular series Friday Night Lights in which he tells coach Eric Taylor that he’s lost his “inner pirate”: